PATTAYA, THAILAND - A Belarusian model who sparked global intrigue after claiming she had evidence of Russian efforts to help Donald Trump win office pleaded not guilty on Monday (Aug 20) to charges of running an illegal "sex training" class in Thailand.
Anastasia Vashukevich, better known by her pen name Nastya Rybka, has been detained in Thailand since February when police raided a risque seminar in the seaside resort city of Pattaya.
Vashukevich had travelled to Thailand after becoming embroiled in a political scandal with Russian aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska, a onetime associate of Trump's now-disgraced former campaign director Paul Manafort.
She set off a scramble for details after she promised in an Instagram video to reveal "missing puzzle pieces" on claims the Kremlin aided the US President's 2016 election victory.
No material has been released to substantiate her claims, and critics have accused her of a publicity stunt.
Vashukevich and her seven co-defendants arrived at the Pattaya court on Monday for a pre-trial hearing on the charges that include unlawful assembly and conspiracy.
Police initially charged the group with work permit violations but later alleged the seminar, led by self-styled Russian seduction guru Alex Kirillov and ostensibly a course training participants to be better lovers, was actually intended to arrange paid sex for participants.
Photos of course participants in detention after the February raid showed them wearing t-shirts that said "sex animator".
Kirillov, who has served as a spokesperson for the mostly-Russian group because he speaks English, told the court that all eight defendants were pleading not guilty.
"We did not commit any crimes," he said. "What we do is training on how to seduce men and women. We do not make any sexual activity." Vashukevich cried after the prosecutor showed a photo of several of her co-defendants hugging at a nightclub after a training session.
"Why was I arrested? Why am I here?" she said.
The next hearing has been set for Aug 27.
Pattaya, on Thailand's southern coast, is a party town with a reputation for vice and a sizeable Russian expatriate community.
Both Washington and Moscow have publicly shrugged off Vashukevich's story, which US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described as "bizarre".
Additional legal troubles are also awaiting Vashukevich and Kirillov back in Russia, where Deripaska won an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the duo last month.
They were ordered to pay US$8,000 (S$10,974) each to Deripaska, who sued them after a video apparently filmed by Vashukevich surfaced which appeared to show the tycoon vacationing with Sergei Prikhodko, an influential Russian deputy prime minister at the time.
Kremlin-connected Deripaska and Manafort did business together in the mid-2000s, The New York Times reported last year, but their relationship broke down into legal wrangling.
Manafort is awaiting a verdict in his own trial on fraud and tax evasion charges in the US state of Virginia.